Clearing the Air on Transferring Park Air Rights

BY MADELYN WILS  | Andrew Berman, the executive director of Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, raises concern over whether a recent amendment to the Hudson River Park Act would allow the park to sell unused development rights from our public piers, to support Hudson River Park.

As we have discussed with the community in the past, the bill signed into law in November allows us to sell unused development rights pursuant to local zoning ordinances. This means that at present, the Hudson River Park Trust has NO air rights to sell and NO ability or mechanism to transfer them. The amount of air rights available for potential sale, as well as the method for transferring them, must and will be developed within a ULURP process involving Community Boards 1, 2 and 4, and many elected officials. At recent meetings at each of the three community boards, we all agreed to work closely together on the detailed planning and ULURP processes required to create an air rights district. Community partnership and support are quite simply essential if we are to succeed in ensuring the future of the park.

At the February 12 Community Board 2 Land-Use Committee meeting and previously at Community Board 4, I stated that although the amended legislation is not explicit about restricting transfers only from commercial piers, the Trust would never seek to argue that public park piers have unused air rights. In fact, as the entity with primary legal responsibility for interpreting and adhering to the Hudson River Park Act, the Trust has concluded that park-use-only piers are legislatively restricted from transferring air rights. The November legislation did not change aspects of the original legislation that make this clear.

While the public park piers do retain their underlying zoning (M2-3), there are multiple provisions of the park act that would together prohibit a transfer argument from park piers. Beyond the restrictions on use that limit certain specified piers to park uses only (and therefore no commercial development, and therefore, by inference, no claim of unused development rights), another provision limits the size of structures on park piers to 10 percent of the surface area, eliminating any unused FAR argument on those piers.

In addition, Mr. Berman proposed several ideas in his letter, and the Trust looks forward to discussing some of them with City Planning when we have the opportunity to do so. But, as I said at the CB2 meeting, over the 10 years since the first section of the park opened, properties along the corridor have repeatedly received upzonings and variances from the city, from value largely created by Hudson River Park, yet with no benefit to the park. It is clear that the transfer-of-development-rights concept is NOT what is incentivizing developers to rezone their properties.

The Trust believes that creating a well-developed plan that governs the whole district along the park’s corridor would be a more thoughtful and predictable way to approach development than the piecemeal approach that has been the practice to date. Our goal is to work with the communities and city to develop a policy that prohibits developers within the defined park corridor from securing approvals for upzonings or changes of use to residential unless they are required to buy air rights from Hudson River Park. Such a policy would create a financial benefit to the park while also reducing future commercial development within the park.

We believe the agendas of our two organizations are much the same. At heart, the Hudson River Park Trust and the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, as well as the other organizations that have signed Mr. Berman’s most recent letter, are trying to protect a part of the city that we all love. We also believe that the physical fabric of the neighborhoods has to be protected, and that the park itself is part of that fabric. It is heartening to know that the signatories to Mr. Berman’s letter recognize that Hudson River Park, which is both incomplete and underfunded, faces huge financial challenges and that some new ways of thinking are required to address those needs.

Moving forward, the Trust aims to keep dialogue open, and hopes to work together, as we navigate these ideas and others in pursuit of our common objective: the preservation and sustainability of the West Side and its backyard.

— Wils is president and CEO, Hudson River Park Trust.